The hard-line anti-anonymity approach for Google+ shows Google still doesn't get social

Google's approach to pseudonymity leaves much to be desired

When Google+ launched, I was really happy with the service and thought that Google was in a great position to demonstrate that they "get" some of the complaints that users have long had with Facebook. While Google seemed to be getting it right initially, the missteps it's making in handling user demand for pseudonyms and anonymity are every bit as clueless as Facebook's privacy policies.

If you've not heard about the fuss so far, here's the deal: Google is apparently going out of its way to act against users who are using pseudonyms on the service. It's whacked some high-profile users like Limor Fried (also known as "Ladyada") and Kirrily Robert (better known as "Skud"), as well as (apparently) a number of other folks who are either using pure pseudonyms or pseudonyms in addition to their real names or just going by their initials. It looks like Google has also used the banhammer on Chinese users who use English names or nicknames. Another account here.

I've two problems with this — one is the policy itself, the other is the way Google is applying the policy.

Let's start with the policy. There's certainly a case to be made that anonymity online is not pure wonderfulness. I won't argue that allowing anonymity or pseudonyms comes without baggage — it most certainly does. Look in any forum that allows anonymous coward commenting, and you'll usually find that if the discussion is troll-laden, it's thanks to AC commenters and people hiding behind pseudonyms. Certainly the Internet and perceived anonymity allow and encourage behavior that can be undesirable.

However, there are many good reasons for people to wish to use pseudonyms online. There's also the fact that assumptions about names by programmers tend to be faulty. The reasons for pseudonyms, at least in my opinion, heavily outweigh a blanket policy such as Google's against pseudonyms displayed to the public. I'd have more sympathy for Google's policy if they required some sort of confirmation of real-worldness to prevent sock-puppets, etc., but allowed users to only display a pseudonym, initials, or a nickname.

Some sympathy, but not a lot. There's a lot of reason for users to avoid disclosing identity to providers like Google when it can be easily subject to subpoena or might be uncovered in areas where it might subject users to political reprisals.

The second problem is that Google is apparently misapplying its own policies and just going after anything that "looks" like an unusual name. Putting the smackdown on Robert's account goes against allowing using names by which someone is usually known. I don't know Robert personally, but she's well-known in the FOSS community and I've seen her in online discussions and have her blog or presentations referenced in discussions at conferences. Guess what? Nobody I've known has talked about "Kirrily" — she's almost universally known as Skud online and among the folks she's likely to connect to on Google+.

I have a bit of first-hand experience with pseudonyms myself. My profile is under my "real" name as defined by the name on my driver's license (well, "Joe" instead of "Joseph" but still) and other official documents. But you know what? Quite a few people I work with know me primarily as Zonker or jzb. It would seem to be in compliance with Google's ToS if I were listed as Zonker, but I suspect that if my profile only included my nickname — which is how many people know me — I'd have been caught up in Google's recent anti-pseudonym sweep. Zonker might not pass Google's "sounds like a real name" test, but anyone could tell you that if I had signed up just as Zonker or Zonker Brockmeier, I wouldn't be playing shenanigans or trying to hide my real identity.

I'm not sure why Google is being so hard-lined about this issue. Perhaps it's as Vic Gundotra, senior vice-president of social for Google, said and Google is just trying to set a positive tone. However, Gundotra must be completely socially tone-deaf if he thinks that a comparison between requiring real names online and not allowing shirtless folks to enter a restaurant is apt. Perhaps there's a commercial component to requiring real names and verification. This also seems a bit tied to the fuss over allowing "brand" accounts on Google, and it's disappointing to see how quickly Google has jumped to accommodate brand accounts in a service where the company has yet to figure out how to handle people.

Either way, the impact is that Google is acting with the same kind of ham-fistedness that have cause so many people to dislike Facebook. Indeed, Google seems to be setting a land-speed record here to prove that Google+ will be no more respectful of its users than Facebook.

Many, if not most, of the users using pseudonyms on Google+ and other online services aren't harming or offending anyone. It's totally up to me on Google+ whether I want to interact with someone. If I want to "circle" Robert under her pseudonym, that's up to me — if I don't want to, then that's my call as well. It seems Google is ignoring the advantages of its own platform in order to chase some misguided theory about the benefits of enforcing real names.

There's much, much more to be written on the topic of online identity — but the final word right now is that Google is blowing it, badly. The company needs to amend its approach to anonymity and pseudonymity, quickly.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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